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Friday, Dec. 31, 2010
2010 top movies: 2-D vs. 3-D, actors vs. avatars
Special to The Japan Times
Even though it was released at the tail end of 2009, it was clearly "Avatar" that defined cinema in 2010. While this critic was lukewarm about it — "Dances With Wolves" in space, basically — plenty of nongeeky people I know truly loved it, so I've begun to reconsider my stance. One convincing argument came from Stuart Klawans of American journal The Nation, who pegged it as "techno-mysticism," and even dared to suggest similarities with Stanley Kubrick's "2001."
While "Avatar" director James Cameron's ex, Kathryn Bigelow, took home the best-picture Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," an intense tale of a bomb disposal team in Baghdad, some have made the argument that "Avatar" is actually the better Iraq War film, for it dared to name the agenda of corporate greed and rapaciousness that drives such neo-imperial expeditions.
The win for "The Hurt Locker," though, was welcome — it was an independent production that, despite liberties taken, depicted an on-the-ground reality in Iraq that rarely made its way into the media. The film also gained some notoriety when its production company filed a lawsuit against 5,000 BitTorrent users who had downloaded copies of the film. While the file-sharers like to justify their actions as a drop in the bucket that won't make any difference to the "big studios," it's worth noting that "The Hurt Locker" is the first best-picture Oscar winner ever to not land in the box-office Top 10. Clearly it could have used more tickets sold and fewer online freeloaders.
The success of "Avatar" was viewed by many in the industry as a sign of the public's newfound appetite for 3-D. The suits desperately want to believe this — as DVD revenues plummet, 3-D offers an in-theater experience that can't be duplicated on download copies — but the rush to release more 3-D product has seen a bunch of slapdash postproduction attempts that looked like rubbish. The popup book effect of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and the strange distended heads in "Clash of the Titans" were the worst offenders.
For my money, the most creative use of the technology this year came in Henry Selick's "Coraline" — a cartoon-Gothic reimagining of "Alice in Wonderland" — which was a glorious fusion of old-school stop-motion animation with 3-D's potential to pull you through the looking glass. Brilliant, adventurous and fun, where so many films this year were dull and predictable.
It seemed like digital special effects were the raison d'etre for all too many flicks in 2010; in the wildly overrated "Inception," the mere act of waking triggered an orgy of computer-generated destruction. John Hillcoat's "The Road," based on a chilling Cormac McCarthy novel of a father and son trying to survive in a desolate postapocalyptic America, was a breath of fresh air: It conjured its entire fictional wasteland out of actual locations — post-Katrina New Orleans, ash-ravaged Mount St. Helens, and, uh, Pittsburgh. Similarly effective was "Sin Nombre," which was filmed on the same train roofs that poor Central American immigrants ride to the United States border. Doing something real is ever more sexy in an age of infinite digital possibility.
SFX kind of doomed Peter Jackson's big-screen adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel "The Lovely Bones" — not enough for the fanboys, while too much for the critics. Jackson's florid imaginings of the afterlife were a bit much, but this haunting film has images that just won't go away: the cry of despair that Saoirse Ronan unleashes as her 11-year-old character runs to the safety of her family home, only to realize she's already gone, a specter peering into a world defined by her absence; or Stanley Tucci's infinitely creepy Mr. Harvey as he affably lures a victim into his underground lair.
Peter Jackson's long-awaited "Lord of the Rings" prequel, "The Hobbit," has been hobbled by the fact that one of its backers, MGM, this year filed for bankruptcy. (Again, blame declining DVD sales.) Economic uncertainty and angst was the reality for many moviegoers in 2010, and Jason Reitman's biting comedy "Up in the Air" was the film that best captured this mood. It boasted one of George Clooney's slickest performances ever, as a ruthless consultant brought in by wimpy bosses to fire their employees, while Vera Farmiga was just as sharp as the woman who chews him up and spits him out.
Jeff Bridges's character in "Crazy Heart," a washed-up alcoholic country and western singer seemingly one or two paychecks away from winding up on the street, also spoke to the current anxiety. Bridges, deploying his usual laid-back charm, won a well-deserved best- leading-actor Oscar for this role (the one he should have received for "The Big Lebowski"), but he also made cinematic history this year in "Tron: Legacy" by being the first actor to costar opposite his digital avatar. He surely won't be the last.